And like that, it was over. Not with a whimper, but with a real thunderclap bang. Not since 1966 has there been a World Cup Final featuring at least six goals, and not since 1954 have we seen so few 0-0 draws across the tournament. In France we find worthy world champions: the last of the “old guard” of World Cup-winning nations still standing, the most professional and organised team here, and the most exciting young team to emerge from this World Cup finals – featuring prodigious 19-year-old superstar Kylian Mbappe. Remember the name.
It’s fortunate that Russia 2018 oozed so much quality – for the rest of us, sure, but for Russian premier Putin and FIFA president Infantino especially, given the context of the tournament. When the decision to award the tournament to Russia produced eight years of bribery and corruption charges, and when Russian sport was thrown into disarray by the Sochi Olympic doping scandal – not to mention Russia’s political standing among the West – one feared that in this World Cup, the politicians, not the players, would reign paramount. The fact that video assistant referees (or VAR) would be controversially added into the mix for the first time at a World Cup hardly added to any excitement around the football.
So Putin must have been licking his lips when that delightful fifth goal went in for his team against Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening fixture. The focus was firmly on the footballing delight, and it would not waver for another four and a half long weeks. But it was the third fixture – the highly anticipated group-stage clash between two footballing giants in Portugal and Spain – that truly ignited this World Cup and set the stage for what was yet to come.
For although Russia’s 5-0 dismantling of Saudi Arabia blew away the world’s expectations for a host nation that was also the lowest-ranked team at their own competition, the thrilling 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal exuded class, grit, and the sheer attacking determination that pervaded this tournament, leaving us with just a solitary 0-0 draw, the fewest since the days when those simply didn’t happen at World Cups. Cristiano Ronaldo may have in the end failed to leave Russia with the World Cup he has so surely craved throughout his career, but in his opening fixture he proved to the world why he has been considered by so many to be the GOAT (greatest of all time), rescuing his side a crucial point with a wonderfully taken hat-trick of goals.
What of that other GOAT? As ever, Argentina’s Lionel Messi struggled within a team overflowing with attacking talent but lacking in defensive and midfield areas to reproduce the sublime club form he impresses with at Barcelona. Iceland certainly deserve their plaudits as they managed to keep one of the all-time greats of the game quiet as they battled against Argentina to their first-ever World Cup point at their first-ever World Cup match – an impressive achievement for a country with a population of just over 330,000. But it was to no-one’s surprise that Argentina were duly humiliated in one of the great games of World Cup football as they were knocked out by an ascendant France, that teenage maestro Mbappe scoring twice in the 4-3 thriller – the scoreline of which flattered Argentina no end.
Ronaldo and Portugal, too, found little luck in the knockout stage of a World Cup that has acted as a real changing of the guard of football’s old elite. Germany, so dominant four years ago in Brazil, followed in the footsteps of France in 2002, Italy in 2010, and Spain in 2014 in crashing out at the group stage as reigning world champions. Igor Akinfeev’s outstretched left leg proved the difference as tiki-taka died a slow, labourious, and humiliating death when Spain crashed out on penalties to a Russian team who were happy to let the Spanish pass the ball around the half-way line for 120 minutes. As the games ticked by, it slowly became apparent that the old certainties of football were being broken down, bit by bit.
Of course, this was to be to England’s advantage. So long the butt of so many jokes and sneers, the Three Lions roared again in Russia, demolishing Panama 6-1 en route to winning their first ever penalty shootout at a World Cup when they did the impossible against a cynical Colombian side missing star man James Rodriguez. This was an England side that finally did the impossible – did what the “Golden Generation” of Rooney, Lampard, Gerrard, et al could not – and allowed our small nation to dream once more. You can make the argument that the draw opened up favourably for a side so used to crashing out early – you’ll be hard-pressed to find softer quarter-final opponents than Sweden – and that, technically, this was not England’s first World Cup semi-final since 1990 (the women reached the same stage three years ago in Canada), but there is no denying the sheer positivity that swept the country for just a couple of short weeks as it looked like maybe, just maybe, football would be coming home after all.
In the end, it wasn’t to be. But that terrific World Cup run, coupled with the heatwave back home, did just enough to distract a country from the divisions that have engulfed it over the last few years, even if just for a short, sweet month. Such is the power of football.
One would hope that France is feeling that power right now, feeling that wave of optimism crash over it in the wake of their clinical 4-2 victory over a Croatia side that had done ever so well just to be here, but who looked ever more out of their depth as the second half cruised on. For a moment, it looked like they might just shock the eventual champions, Ivan Perisic’s tremendous left-footed strike to level the scores after an unfortunate Mandzukic acting like a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the 11 Croatians on the pitch and the 4.5 million watching in the stadium, in pubs, in fan parks, and in their back gardens.
Of course it could not be, the VAR that had been eerily absent from the knockout rounds after so dominating the group stage resurfacing its head in typically controversial fashion. You may argue that the penalty given after a lengthy review was the correct call, you may not, you may get as riled up as the absurdly livid Alan Shearer, but you just knew that VAR would have to leave its mark on this final in some way or another. Add in a goalkeeping howler from Hugo Lloris, a venomous shot from the Paul Pogba we all used to know from Juventus, and of course a terrific, outside-the-box finish from that man Mbappe – the first goal by a teenager in a World Cup final since the days of Pele in 1958. The thunderstorm that had been threatening Moscow finally burst into life at the moment those French players went up to collect that famous trophy for only the second time in their nation’s history.
And so, it was all over. The greatest show on earth, crashing to a close. Mbappe will surely pick up the title of GOAT from Messi and Ronaldo, if not now then before Qatar 2022. The old footballing greats of Germany, Spain, Italy, and Holland came crashing out in dramatic fashion or didn’t even make it to the party. The Three Lions roared, and dared a nation to dream once more. And at the end of it all, France brought the thunder, and blew the world away.